Visiting the Durham Home of the Prince Bishops

It is difficult to imagine a defensive structure more strategically situated. Guarded by steep slopes descending to an almost complete loop of the River Wear, Durham Castle remained impregnable for eight centuries. Yet even this fortress is dwarfed by the huge cathedral that shares its peninsula.

Having grown organically through centuries, Durham city is not an easy drive for the motorist, but by following signposts, Therese and I eventually arrived at the Riverside car park, tunnelled away beneath the Gates Shopping Centre. A stroll through the shops brought us to Framwellgate Bridge and a first close view of the Cathedral and Castle.

 Framwellgate Bridge

Framwellgate Bridge

We crossed the bridge, and almost immediately entered Moatside Lane, little more than a metre wide, which snaked steeply uphill between ancient houses, then down again onto Saddler’s Street. Once cobbled, this was now re-surfaced, and allowed the controlled passage of cars, one direction at a time, past the many small shops, the upper storeys of which beetled over the pavements to give the narrow street a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere. We followed this, still uphill, and turned into Palace Green, a grassy quadrangle backed by the enormous bulk of the Cathedral.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Durham Castle is one of the earliest examples of a Norman Castle in England. It is still largely intact and is in full use today.
  • Durham Cathedral is the oldest example of a form of mediaeval architecture which evolved into Gothic.
  • Two of the most important English saints are buried in the Cathedral.
  • Durham Cathedral and Castle together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • The situation of the Cathedral and Castle is magnificent.

Durham Castle

A tour of Durham Castle was about to begin, so we joined a dozen others in the courtyard to the north of Palace Green, together with Rachel, an undergraduate student of Durham University, who was to be our highly knowledgeable and articulate guide.

Motte and Bailey

Motte and Bailey

Durham Castle was commissioned in 1072 by William the Conqueror, mainly as a bulwark against the Scots. It was built as a home for the Earls of Northumberland, but when they moved to Alnwick, where their descendents still live, Durham became the property of the Prince Bishops. Though ruling on behalf of the King, these were largely independent, and as well as religious powers, had secular ones, such as the raising of taxes and minting of coins, powers they retained until the Reformation under Henry VIII.

Of a standard Norman design, the main building, the Keep, stands on an artificial mound, the ‘motte’, surrounded by an open space, the ‘bailey’, of which the courtyard was a part. The Keep now houses University student accommodation. The walls around the courtyard were decorated by coats-of-arms of Bishops who had built additions to the castle.

Inside the Castle

The Great Hall, now used weekly for formal student dinners, was, during our visit, decked out for a wedding reception. Originally built in the 13th century, it was extended a hundred years later by Bishop Hatfield. Its wood panelling dates from the 18th century, and the many portraits on the walls were of University dignitaries, including William van Mildert, the last Prince Bishop, in whose reign, in the 1830s, the Castle was transformed into the University. The upper tier of paintings were by Spanish artists and depicted various saints. Above a balcony were suits of armour from the English Civil War and weaponry from the Napoleonic era.

Beyond the Great Hall is the highly elaborate Black Staircase, built by Bishop Cosins in the 1660s. This was the first flying staircase in Britain supported only by the walls to which the steps were joined. The pillars were added a century later. From the stairwell, we entered the Tunstall Gallery, built as a lean-to against the outer wall, so protecting its carved Norman doorway from the weather. Bishop Tunstall managed to maintain his position throughout the religious turbulence of the Tudor period by changing his ecclesiastic allegiance to satisfy whichever monarch held the throne.

We continued into the oldest stone-built part of the castle, the Norman Chapel, constructed in 1083. The capitols that crowned its pillars were adorned with both pagan and Christian symbols, including the earliest known representation of a mermaid. During the 1940s, the chapel reverted briefly to military usage, when it became a communications centre for the Royal Air Force.

Cathedral Nave

Cathedral Nave

Durham Cathedral

Leaving the Castle, we made our way across Palace Green and into the Cathedral. One can only be overwhelmed by the vast space enclosed by this magnificent building, construction of which began in 1093, as a suitable shrine and resting place for the remains of Saint Cuthbert.

Cuthbert spent his adult life on the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne off the north-east coast. He died in AD687 and was interred on the latter, which became known as Holy Island. Two centuries later, following Viking raids, the monks carried his body through the north of England for seven years, finally burying him at Chester-le-Street in 883. In 995, the remains were again disinterred and re-buried on the site of Durham Cathedral.

Apart from its unique ambience, what makes the Cathedral (together with the Castle) a UNESCO World Heritage Site is its pioneering architecture, which extended the limits of mediaeval engineering and technology. It was intended to rival St Peter’s in Rome, and indeed, the spiral patterns on some of the huge columns were inspired by those in the centre of Christianity. Elsewhere, the columns are carved with chevrons and lozenges, while smaller ones near the altar are decorated with Frosterley marble, a local stone which is, in fact, a form of limestone, packed with large marine fossils. While the arches between the columns are of typically Norman circular structure, the stone-vaulted ceiling is the earliest surviving example of the use of pointed, arched ribs, a method that evolved into the Gothic style.

St Cuthbert's Tomb

St Cuthbert’s Tomb

Tombs of the Saints

Behind the main altar stands the Neville Screen, which dates from the 1370s. This hides the Sanctuary in which lies the tomb of Saint Cuthbert, beneath a plain stone slab. Beyond this is the Nine Altars Chapel, above which is the late 19th century Rose Window, depicting Christ, the Apostles and the 24 elders from the Book of Revelation. Through the cathedral’s west wall is the small, though no less elaborate Galilee Chapel, which holds the shrine and tomb of the other great north-east scholar, Saint Bede (672-735), who wrote the first large-scale history of the English people.

We concluded our visit by walking through the cloisters, from which we enjoyed a view of the Cathedral that is, if anything, even more impressive than that from Palace Green.

View from the Cloisters

View from the Cloisters

Throughout the centuries, many superlatives have been showered upon Durham Cathedral. The author, Bill Bryson has been quoted as saying that he has no hesitation in declaring it ‘the best cathedral on planet Earth.’ Whether one agrees with that conclusion or not, there can be no disputing the fact that it would occupy a very high position on anyone’s list of the finest monuments in the Christian world.


  • Car parking is not allowed in the environs of the Cathedral and Castle, but there are several city centre car parks that are well signposted. Access is uphill and on foot.
  • Entry to the Castle is by guided tour only, for which a small fee is charged.
  • Entry to the Cathedral is free, but donations for the upkeep of the building are gratefully accepted.

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